Most processors may not know it, but one of their biggest competitors just might be the federal government.
Federal Prison Industries Inc., operating under the trade name Unicor, generated nearly $134 million in sales under its plastics and electronics division in 2000. Its plastics operations are located in federal prisons in Beaumont, Texas, and Fairton, N.J., and include injection molding, thermoforming, extrusion and compression molding.
Processors that compete with Unicor acknowledge that the idea behind the program is good. But, especially now that the economy is in bad shape, they are pushing to reform the system.
It's true that reform is needed. But legislators need to be careful not to gut the program at the behest of jealous competitors.
Largely because of the ongoing war on drugs, Unicor's been in a major growth mode in the past decade. It's a simple matter of numbers: Federal law requires Unicor to employ 25 percent of medically able convicts, and the prison population has exploded in recent years, from fewer than 25,000 inmates in 1980 to 155,000 today.
Doing the math, that means Unicor has nearly 39,000 inmates who need to stay busy, get some work experience, perhaps learn some skills and generate some revenue that may help pay for their incarceration.
Right now, Unicor has an unfair advantage in winning government work. The company has the opportunity to take any federal contract — without competitive bidding — if it can prove that it can handle the job. That can lead to inefficiency and wastefulness.
The government needs to find a way to inject some competition into the process. The goal should not be to take work away from Unicor and give it to the private sector, but to make sure taxpayers aren't being fleeced, and to give processors a fair chance to win a bigger share of government work.